4:20 PM, November 8th, 1941. As my father predicted, it’s a mild, breezy afternoon. In my grandmother’s verdant back yard, there’s a hint of sulfur on the air, wafting in from the deep black waters of the Suwannee River a few miles away. The camellia bushes my grandfather tends with daily care bloom pink and red all around, and over there, near a trellised archway woven with ivy and white ribbon, a small pond swims with goldfish. Just back of the archway, a family friend taps out a tune soothing but playful on her piano as her violinist follows her lead. Behind them, the wedding cake lies whole and gleaming on a folding table covered in white linen.
A handful of friends down from Atlanta gather beneath a dogwood tree, where a clutch of Live Oak-ians greet them. With his best man, my grandfather Mattingly, at his elbow, my father moves confidently among his guests, laughing, charming them so that the Baptists have to wonder what gave rise to their misgivings about him and his faith. Inside, in the kitchen, my mother’s maternal aunts arrange deviled eggs on a platter, finger sandwiches on a tray. They stay busy, keeping their eyes off the clock, while in the front bedroom, my Aunt Bum, the maid of honor, fusses with my mother’s veil. My grandmother paces. My mother, standing to keep from wrinkling her ivory moire dress, holds back tears.
“Where can that man be …” says my efficient grandmother, her small heavy shoes creating a racket on the wood floor. “I’ve half a mind to send George (my grandfather) out after him.”
My aunt peers out the window, then at her watch—4:25 now, but no sign of Father McLoughlin …
Strangely, the attic has yet to give up photos of my parents’ wedding, only a portrait or two of my mother in her gown. I can picture it, though. I spent many summer days playing on that green lawn, poking at the goldfish, somersaulting in the grass, hiding and seeking my cousins from next door. And the Good Father did show up, of course, in a station wagon according to family lore, and for some reason, my mother always rolled her eyes at this detail. A priest in a station wagon? Driving a family car? But drive up he did, gunning along the unpaved driveway in a puff of dust. The radio blared through his open windows—Notre Dame football, and whether this endeared him to my father or not is hard to say. Dad and his friends were rabid Tech Yellow Jacket fans, so the football was good. Notre Dame, not so much. But he had made it. Stepping out grinning and rumpled, I imagine Father McLoughlin calming the wedding party with a light Irish brogue. From there, the ceremony proceeded without a hitch.
Later, my parents were off on their honeymoon, to Pensacola and Mobile and New Orleans. The first evening, after my father hung his clothes in the hotel closet, he came out dressed for dinner, eyes brimming. He touched my mother’s arm and said, “Your clothes are lined up right next to mine!” She must have kissed him then. I’m sure she did.
A month and a day later, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor and my parents world turned upside down, the way the world will. Before long, my father would be back on the road, for basic training and that sort of thing. They wrote more letters, lots more, back and forth from Live Oak and Atlanta to army bases around the South. They were lucky. My father, blind in one eye since childhood, couldn’t very well shoot a gun, so he served his time stateside while his cronies were sent off to France and Italy and beyond.
My parents had a good marriage, certainly a resilient one (62 years!). They had their rough patches, their losses and heartaches. Mom could be stubborn, a little spoiled, but then Dad was the one who indulged her. And he could be controlling to a fault. Late in their lives together, as my father began to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s, I saw cracks and fissures between my parents I’d never suspected before. This upset my siblings and me. They were our parents. Their devotion should have been strong enough to weather anything, even the dissolution of my father’s very personality. Maybe because of this, for a time after my father died I found myself feeling a little angry at my mother. Now, eleven years later with both of them gone, I’m grateful for the years we had with Mom alone, grateful, too, that she saved everything, all these letters and photos and yes, even the toothpicks. (She threw a great party, after all!) By leaving behind these mementoes, these ordinary objects that now seem magical, Mom has given us a glimpse into their past, their shining youth, where my parents will dance forever to the sounds of Glenn Miller and Bennie Goodman, my father’s heart swelling as he holds close this woman he knows will make his dreams come true.
And when the band eases into their mutual favorite, Stardust–well, they both knew nothing could stop them.
… Though I dream in vain
In my heart it will remain
My stardust melody,
The memory of love’s refrain.